Every dream needs its own space
LAPP introduces a new innovation process that also enables radical and disruptive innovations. But the classic stage-gate approach is not dead, assures Guido Ege, Head of Product Management and Development at LAPP.
By Bernd Müller, freelance journalist for LAPP
Every dream needs its own space. When Guido Ege talks about innovation, the Head of Product Management and Development at LAPP likes to use metaphors. “Space" is one such metaphor - for methods, processes and freedoms to develop innovations that were previously unthinkable. "In the past, this space was limited at LAPP. The classic Stage-Gate process defined the guard rails within which the innovation process took place. If certain goals were met - functionality, costs, deadlines - the gatekeeper's thumb went up - or in the other case down and the project was finished. There was hardly any room for radical, transformational and disruptive innovations, because there you often don't even know the goals, market potential and business model at the beginning of the process. "And if you can't describe the goals exactly, how can you evaluate compliance with them," says Guido Ege, describing the dilemma. But economic change, which is characterized by rapid digitalization, new business models and uncertainty about the future, also requires a new approach to the innovation process.
Flashback: Two innovation projects from LAPP's recent past are examples of how the classic approach can run into the void. At the same time, they were the starting signal for the development of a new innovation process at LAPP: Innovation for Future. More on this later. First the two projects:
The initial situation: Cable harnessing providers buy bulk cable goods, connectors and cable glands from LAPP and then assemble the finished cables that they supply to their customers, such as machine builders. In order for the end user to be able to assign the cables, they are marked by the harnessing provider. To do this, an employee types in the designations from the customer's circuit diagram and prints the marking tags, which also come from LAPP. In production, other workers then assign and affix the labels to the individual cables. This manual process involves sources of error and is time-consuming.
The solution: Using design thinking, an innovation team from LAPP developed several solutions, one of which stands out in particular: cloud marking. The machine manufacturer loads the information for the markings into a cloud where the harnessing provider can download and print them. The advantage is that each label is uniquely assigned to its position in the circuit diagram, which makes attaching the labels much faster and minimizes sources of error.
The problem: In the design thinking process, potential customers were involved right from the start. In several iteration rounds - so-called sprints – LAPP and the potential customers in cooperation refined the concept, which in the end was available on paper and as a PowerPoint presentation. "We started too late to think about the physical realization and to involve a software development partner," says Guido Ege. Due to a lack of time, budget and clear responsibility, nothing happened for a year - "we were Lost in Sprint," says Ege. Meanwhile, cloud marking is back on track: a service provider in India is developing the software for it.
The starting position: Predictive maintenance is one of the great promises of Industry 4.0. LAPP also thinks about how to predict the failure of a cable before that actually happens. The cooperation with universities did not result in reliable parameters from which a failure could have been inferred.
The solution: LAPP developers found hints for how to infer the effects of aging and probability of failure of a cable from a decreasing transmission capability. For this purpose, certain technical parameters of the cable are measured during operation and compared with the extensive measurement data from LAPP's test laboratory.
The problem was that the solution was technically demanding, which is why, for a long time, the developers focused exclusively on technology. "In this case, nobody asked themselves which customers might needed such a system and how much they would be willing to pay for it," says Guido Ege. In LAPP’s futureLab at the Hannover Messe 2019, when the solution was presented for the first time, the interest was huge. Ege: "Now we want to further develop this solution with pilot customers and develop a suitable business model for it".
Cloudmarking and predictive maintenance show how innovation processes can proceed if innovation management does not fit the challenge. In the first case the technical implementation was forgotten, in the second the customer and the business model. The lesson: The Stage Gate process is not suitable for innovation projects with an uncertain outcome. Thumbs up or down does not do justice to the complexity of such ideas. For LAPP's management, this experience was the occasion to think about a new innovation process that could accompany transformational and disruptive ideas and lead to success. The result:
Innovation for Future
For this approach there are three prerequisites that have to be fulfilled in parallel: A technical solution has to be developed, you have to talk to at least one potential customer and you have to develop a business model canvas in which all nine elements of the Stage-Gate process are filled out - that's how the innovation managers of LAPP defined it. But these are only the formalities. The decisive difference is the role of management. Instead of just saying yes or no to a development status at defined intervals, managers will be in demand in the future as providers of ideas and supporters. They create networks for the innovation team and provide the budget, which not only means money, but also time - exactly the space in which the dream of a new product or service can become reality. "But that doesn't mean Stage-Gate is dead," says Guido Ege. Rather, it is a part also of the Innovation for Future process, and remains the method of choice for incremental innovations, such as a new type of cable based on a predecessor product.
Innovation for Future will be introduced at LAPP this year. If the new innovation concept proves its worth, it will profoundly change the company. After all, it is by no means just a matter of individual product innovations. "LAPP is evolving from a provider of physical products to a solution provider - and that affects processes, logistics and management," emphasizes Guido Ege. "Lapp is to become more innovative as an entire company. Innovation for Future opens up space for this.